I know I’m not alone in never having enough time. Between getting to work and back, actually working, feeding myself, taking the top layer of dust off everything in the house, and spending time with the people I’m lucky enough to have in my life, there just never seem to be enough hours left to do the things I keep on my mental list of Slightly Bonkers Ideas. Recently, I decided I would like to spend a night every Mountain Bothies Association* bothy in England and Wales. There are 21 of them, and it seemed like a ridiculous, fanciful notion. “You work 40 hours a week, you idiot,” I said to myself, eyeing up my few remaining free weekends on the calendar that hangs in the kitchen. “It’ll take you forever to get to all of them.”
Feeling sorry for myself over my burdensome work schedule and lack of annual leave days, I began to moan. “I work 40 hours a week, plus my commute! With the office hours alone, I only have…wait…” Some quick maths (okay, I used the calculator on my phone) told me that I had 80 hours left every week. That couldn’t be right. I couldn’t possibly have twice as many hours to myself as I spend at work, because I’m at work all the time and never have time left for anything else. But no matter which way I spliced it, the facts were clear: I was wasting 80 valuable hours a week moaning about not having enough hours in the week.
It was because of this that, on the following Tuesday evening, I found myself 100 miles away from work, face-to-face with a horse in a car park at the end of a track in the Black Mountains. I had one set of rumpled office clothes in the bottom of a bag in the car somewhere, a fresh set hanging neatly from a hook in the back, and a whole evening ahead to wander through the hills to a bothy on the edge of a reservoir. I breathed the mountain air and grinned.
I arrived at the tiny bothy an hour later, making the man who’d got there first jump. I introduced myself and, almost immediately, set off the carbon monoxide alarm with my stove. The man, who introduced himself as Simon, must have been peeved by my arrival and calamitous attempts at cooking, but he was kind enough not to show it. He asked what brought me out to the hills that night. Hearing that I was planning to be back at my desk in Warwickshire at 8am was obviously not the answer he was expecting and he nervously asked, “So…what time are you getting up?” We spent the evening on much better terms, sorting out all the world’s problems together over hot chocolates in chipped enamel mugs.
As it happened, Simon needn’t have been worried about being disturbed by my 3:50am alarm. The late arrival of a man called Richard meant we had a full house on the sleeping platform that night. It also meant that Simon and I bailed on the bothy around midnight and slept in bivvy bags under the stars, because Richard was a quite spectacular snorer.
I woke to cool morning light and the sound of the river. I stretched luxuriously on my camping mat and then checked my watch. I remember this vividly: it was 5:06am. Somehow, I had overslept by more than an hour. I bolted out of my bivvy bag – which is quite hard to do – and ran across the grass back to the bothy, scrunching up my bedding into the smallest possible ball as I went. Taking, I admit, not too much trouble to keep the noise down for Snorey Richard’s sake, I rammed the sleeping gear into my bag and shoved my feet into my boots, still wearing my merino base layers, which serve as pyjamas, and my fluffy sleeping socks. The part of my brain which wasn’t panicking about being late registered that my bag was full of scattered porridge oats and coffee powder; the fabled mouse must have found my breakfast. I hoped that the mouse wasn’t still in the bag**, but I was in too much of a frenzy to check. I sped up the steep slope to the footpath on all fours and then half-trotted, half-ran along the track to the car.
It was 8:20am when I strolled, I like to think confidently, across the work site to my office. I was 20 minutes late and still wearing my merino pyjamas. The window of our office looks right out over the path but, if anyone was unlucky enough to see me in my distinctly post-night-in-the-hills state, they didn’t mention it. I showered and made myself look like a normal human again as quickly as I could, and slipped up to my desk just before 9am, relatively unnoticed, with all the dignity I could muster and clutching a sausage sandwich.
I’ll be straight with you: I was mainlining coffee for most of that Wednesday. I looked about as tired as I felt, and I felt bad for leaving Phil alone at home (he’d declined to join because the drive back to work would have been an hour longer for him than mine was for me). But I was also happy. Hours ago, I’d been lying under layers of stars, and watched shooting stars over the mountains. I’d been chatting to a complete stranger who lived in a camper van and was on his way to hedgehog-sit for a friend. I’d had the glorious relaxation of being off-grid. Sure, it was only for a few hours. And not even I am bonkers enough to attempt to drive over 100 miles and hike for an hour to get to a bed every night of the week. But for one night that week, I could say with absolute certainty that I had made the most of my 16 hours in between leaving work one day and arriving the next.
Adventure is the perfect antidote to the desk.
*I’ve only restricted it to the MBA bothies because it’s easy to find their locations online. If you know of any other ones that are good for a visit, please let me know in the comments!
A note on bothies:
The carbon monoxide alarm I ‘tested’ (read: set off by not leaving the door open wide enough) isn’t a fascinating period feature of the bothy. It was installed by the volunteers who maintain these shelters for everybody’s use.
This, like many other bothies across the UK, is maintained by the Mountain Bothies Association. The MBA and their volunteers do fantastic work to keep bothies open and free to use. If you’re thinking of visiting a bothy, please check out the guidelines for using a bothy first, and donate to the MBA if you are able.